ACCESSING JUSTICE IN THE

CONTEMPORARY USA:
FINDINGS FROM THE COMMUNITY
NEEDS AND SERVICES STUDY

REBECCA L. SANDEFUR
AMERICAN BAR FOUNDATION
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN

© 2014 Rebecca L. Sandefur
For release August 8, 2014.

Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Table of Contents

Executive Summary ............................................................................................ 3
Researching Civil Justice in the Contemporary USA: The Community Needs and
Services Study ....................................................................................................4
How Common are Different Kinds of Civil Justice Situations, and Who
Experiences Them? ............................................................................................. 7
What Are the Impacts of Civil Justice Situations? .................................................9
What Do People Do When They Face Civil Justice Situations? ........................... 11
How Do People Understand Civil Justice Situations? ......................................... 14
What Do People Believe About Justice in the USA Today? ................................. 15
Conclusion ........................................................................................................ 16
Acknowledgements .......................................................................................... 17

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Executive Summary
A new study of the civil justice experiences of the American public, the Community
Needs and Services Study, finds widespread incidence of events and situations that have civil
legal aspects, raise civil legal issues and are potentially actionable under civil law. Most are
handled outside the context of the formal justice system. These events are common and can
be severe in their impacts. People experiencing these situations typically do not receive
assistance from lawyers or other formal third parties.
In 2013, two-thirds (66%) of a random sample of adults in a middle-sized American city
reported experiencing at least one of 12 different categories of civil justice situations in the
previous 18 months. For the whole sample, the average number of situations was 2.1; for
people who reported situations, the average number reported was 3.3. The most commonly
reported kinds of situations involved bread and butter issues with far-reaching impacts:
problems with employment, money (finances, government benefits, debts), insurance, and
housing. Poor people were more likely to report civil justice situations than were middleincome or high-income people. African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to report
such situations than Whites.
People reported that almost half (47%) of the civil justice situations they experienced
resulted in a significant negative consequence such as feelings of fear, a loss of income or
confidence, damage to physical or mental health, or verbal or physical violence or threats of
violence. Adverse impacts on health were the most common negative consequence, reported
for 27% of situations.
Typically, people handled these situations on their own. For only about a fifth (22%) of
situations did they seek assistance from a third party outside their immediate social network,
such as a lawyer, social worker, police officer, city agency, religious leader or elected official.
When people who did not seek any assistance from third parties outside their social circles
were asked if cost was one barrier to doing so, they reported that concerns about cost were a
factor in 17% of cases. A more important reason that people do not seek assistance with these
situations, in particular assistance from lawyers or courts, is that they do not understand these
situations to be legal.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Researching Civil Justice in the Contemporary USA: The
Community Needs and Services Study
This report presents findings from a new study of public experience with civil justice
situations, the Community Needs and Services Study (CNSS), funded by the National Science
Foundation and the American Bar Foundation.
The study was conducted in a middle-sized city (approximately 350,000 to 450,000
residents) located in the Midwestern region of the United States. Called here Middle City, the
study city is typical of many US communities in terms of its size and socioeconomic and
demographic  composition;  thus,  its  residents’  experiences  are  expected  to  represent  typical  
experiences in the US context. Middle City looks much like the Midwest, with a population
that is less Hispanic or Latino than the nation at large and a poverty rate around 17%.

Figure 1. Race, Ethnicity and Poverty Status for the USA, the Midwest,
and Middle City: 2010
100%
80%
60%
40%
20%
0%

USA: 2010 Census
Midwest region: 2010
Census
Middle City: 2010 Census

Source: US Census.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

During the summer and fall of 2013, the CNSS surveyed randomly selected adults living
in a stratified random sample of residential addresses in Middle City. Surveys were conducted
in person, in English, typically at respondents’ homes. Interviews usually lasted 60- 90 minutes.
Along with demographic information, the survey includes an inventory of civil justice situations
encountered in the 18 months prior to the survey contact. The result is a rich body of
information about the experiences of a broadly representative sample of the adult residents of
a typical middle-sized American city.
People who participated in the survey were asked about  a  range  of  “situations you may
have  experienced,”  all of which were carefully selected to be situations that have civil legal
aspects, raise civil legal issues, and have consequences shaped by civil law. Thus, people did
not need to be able to assess whether or not the events that they confronted had legal aspects
in order to report them to the survey. Situations were presented in a randomized order to each
respondent, to reduce the effect of questionnaire item ordering on estimates of the prevalence
of different kinds of situations.
For people who reported situations, one of those reported was randomly selected for a
“life  history”  that  collected details about what actions, if any, people took to respond to civil
justice situations and from where, if anywhere, they sought information or assistance. The life
history questions inquired into actions people considered but decided against, into the results
of their attempts to seek information, advice, and other assistance, and into the costs and
impacts of the problem they experienced. The survey also included  measures  of  people’s  
knowledge about their legal rights.
The Community Needs and Services Study shares important similarities with the long
tradition of research that includes the 1994 Comprehensive Legal Needs Study commissioned
by the American Bar Association (see Table 1), but it also differs from the 1994 study in key
respects. In particular, the CNSS sample represents the entire population, rather than only
those of low and moderate income, and it is a sample of individuals, rather than households.
The CNSS also inquired in greater detail about experiences with a wider range of justice
situations.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Table 1. Design Characteristics and Selected Findings from Two Studies of Public
Experience with Civil Justice Situations: USA (1992) and Middle City (2013)

Number of situations
queried
Reference period
Unit of analysis
Mode of administration

Framing
Cooperation rateb
Sample size
Population

Average length of
interview
Average number of
situations reported
Median number of
situations reported
Percent reporting
situations within the
reference period

a

N

USA
67

Middle City
98a

12 months
Household
Telephone and face-toface (for 303 households
without telephones)
“things  that  were  
happening”
74%
3087
Low-incomec and
moderate-incomed
households
45 minutes

18 months
Person
Face-to-face

1

2.1

1

1

49%

66%

3087

668

“situations  you  may  have  
experienced”
61%
668
Entire residential
population, all income
levels
60-90 minutes

Notes: These initial findings exclude situations involving consumer purchases, health care, and
neighborhood and community issues, which will be presented in future reports.
b
A cooperation rate is a measure of participation by targeted respondents for whom contact was
completed. It represents completed interviews as a proportion of completed interviews, interviews that
were terminated before completion, and final refusals to participate. It does not include attempts for which
no contact was made or attempts which were not completed because the study left the field.
c
The 1994 ABA report defined low income households as those eligible for federally funded civil legal
assistance, or households at 125% of the poverty level or below. This report follows that convention.
d
The 1994 ABA report defined moderate income households as those between 126% of poverty and the
th
80 percentile of the national household income distribution. This report follows that convention.
Sources: Report on the Legal Needs of the Low- and Moderate-Income Public (American Bar
Association,  1994)  and  author’s  calculations  from  the  Community  Needs  and  Services  Study.  

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

How Common are Different Kinds of Civil Justice
Situations, and Who Experiences Them?
Civil justice situations are common and widespread, affecting all groups in the
population. When Americans were surveyed about their experience with situations involving
money, debt, rented and owned housing, insurance, employment, government benefits,
children’s  education, clinical negligence, personal injury, and relationship breakdown and its
aftermath, 66% reported experiencing one or more such situations in the 18 months prior to
the survey. As Table 1 reports, the average number of reported situations was 2.1, while the
median was 1. Among people who reported any situation during the reference period, the
average number of situations reported was 3.3 and the median was 2.
The situations people reported most commonly involved their livelihood and financial
stability: 24% of respondents reported at least one situation involving employment (e.g.,
termination, wages, unemployment benefits, disciplinary procedures), 21% at least one
situation involving money (e.g., mismanagement of pension funds, disputed bills), 25% at least
one situation involving debt (e.g., being behind and unable to pay credit cards, student loans,
taxes, or utility bills), and 22% at least one situation involving insurance (e.g., disputes about
payments and claims, confusion about policies and terms). Sixteen percent (16%) reported at
least one situation involving government benefits such as social security, Medicare or food
stamps, while 18% reported situations involving rental housing, such as eviction or problems
with housing conditions.
In a nation of over 316 million people, these rates represent a tremendous amount of
civil justice activity -- tens of millions of civil justice situations.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Figure 2. Percent Reporting at Least One Civil Justice Situation, by Type,
Middle City: 2013

30%
25%
20%
15%
10%
5%
0%

Notes: n=668 respondents.
Source:  Author’s  calculations  from  the  Community  Needs  and  Services  Study.

While all groups in the population encounter civil justice situations, some are more
likely to encounter them than others. As Figure 3 demonstrates, poor people were significantly
more likely to report civil justice situations than people in high or middle income households,
and African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to report civil justice situations than
were Whites.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Figure 3. Percent Reporting at Least One Civil Justice Situation, by Race/Ethnicity,
Gender and Household Income: Middle City, 2013
Hispanic/Latino
African American/Black
White, non-Hispanic

Female
Male

High Income
Middle Income
Low income
0%

20%

40%

60%

80%

100%

Notes: Low income households are those eligible for federally funded civil legal assistance, or households at 125%
th
of the poverty level or below. Middle income households are those between 126% of poverty and the 80
percentile of the national household income distribution. High income households are those with incomes in the
top 20% nationally.
Whites are significantly less likely than non-Whites to report civil justice situations (p <.01).
People in low income households are significantly more likely to report civil justice situations than people living in
high or middle income households (p <.001).
The gender difference is not statistically significant at a conventional level of p<.05 (p=.09).
N=668 respondents.
Source:  Author’s  calculations from the Community Needs and Services Study.

What Are the Impacts of Civil Justice Situations?
Civil justice situations can affect people in many ways, some of them quite severe. One
way to see this is by examining the consequences of civil justice situations for those who
experience them.
For the situations explored in the life histories, people were asked whether they had
experienced any of a list of consequences “as part of, or as a result of....”  the  situation.    The  list  
included negative impacts on physical and mental health, being harassed, assaulted or
threatened, fear, loss of confidence, loss of income, and damage to relationships.
As Figure 4 shows, people attribute a wide range of negative impacts to their civil
justice situations, including verbal and physical violence, lost confidence, loss of income, and
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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

negative impacts on physical or mental health. Almost half (47%) of situations resulted in at
least one of the 6 consequences listed in Figure 4, and about a fifth (21%) of situations resulted
in two or more. People in low income households were most likely to report one or more of
these consequences from their civil justice situations (51% did so), while people in high income
households were least likely to (30% did so).1 These are serious impacts that affect not only
those who experience them but can ripple out to their families, their communities, and society
at large.

Figure 4. Selected Consequences of Civil Justice Situations:
Percent of Situations Resulting in Each Consequence, Middle City, 2013

Two or more of these
Any of these

Verbal/physical assault or threat
Damage to relationships
Loss of confidence
Fear
Loss of income
Damage to health
0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

50%

Notes:  n=425  reported  civil  justice  situations  randomly  selected  for  the  collection  of  situation  “life  histories”.
Source:  Author’s  calculations  from  the  Community  Needs  and  Services  Study.

1

2

L =5.92, df=1, p<.05.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

What Do People Do When They Face Civil Justice
Situations?
Americans respond to their civil justice situations in a wide variety of ways, but this
variety masks a powerful consistency: rarely do they turn to lawyers or courts for assistance. In
the CNSS, the most common source of assistance for people facing civil justice situations is
actually themselves. That is, the most common way in which people report handling civil
justice situations is by taking some action on their own without any assistance from a third
party. Figure 5 terms  this  response  “self-help,”  and  reports  the distribution of sources of
assistance across all of the situations reported in the study. People employed self-help for 46%
of civil justice situations.
The second most common way in which people responded to civil justice situations
involved turning to their immediate social network: 23% of situations were handled with the
help of family or friends, either as the sole source of assistance (16%) or in conjunction with a
third party advisor or representative of some kind (an additional 7%). Just over a fifth (22%) of
situations were handled with the assistance of a third party who was not a member of people’s  
social network.
When people reached outside their immediate social circle for help, they were more
likely to do so for some kinds of situations more than others. People were relatively likely to
reach out to formal third parties for situations involving personal injury, doing so 32% of the
time. They were also relatively likely to do so for situations involving the breakdown of
romantic relationships (i.e., divorce, separation, or breakup from a live-in partner; reaching out
26% of the time), and disputes that emerged out of the breakdown of such relationships (e.g.,
child custody or visitation, division of joint property, or support payments; reaching out 44% of
the time). They were least likely to turn to outside third parties for situations involving housing,
whether owned or rented (16% and 17% of the time respectively), and debts (12% of the time).
People reported that they did nothing about 16% of the civil justice situations they
experienced. People were most likely to do nothing about situations with employment (28%
of the time), government benefits (21% of the time) and insurance (21% of the time). They
were least likely to do nothing about relationship breakdown (2% of the time) and problems
with  children’s  education (2% of the time).

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Figure 5. How People Handle Civil Justice Situations: Percent Handled by Each
Means, Middle City, 2013

7%

16%

15%

Do Nothing
Self-help
Help from family and
friends

16%

Help from
advisor/representative
46%

Help from both

Notes: n=1440 situations reported in 12 different categories. Figure excludes two situations for which
respondents reported that they did not know how they responded.
Source:  Author’s  calculations  from  the  Community  Needs  and  Services  Study.  

When third parties other than family and friends became involved, these seldom
included lawyers or courts. Situations that were selected for detailed follow up in the life
histories provide rich information about how people handle these kinds of events. In these life
histories, very few situations involved courts or tribunals of any kind: 8% of the total situations
selected for in-depth follow-up. Of the small number of situations with some kind of court
involvement (n=36), people sought advice or other assistance from attorneys in just over two
fifths (42%) of cases. In situations with no court involvement, they sought the assistance of
attorneys in 5% of cases.
Why  didn’t  people  reach out further for assistance with in handling civil justice
situations? Interestingly, cost plays a modest role in people’s  accounts  of  why  they  do  not  do
more to respond to the situations they face. Among people who had not gone to any kind of
advisor outside of their own social network, the most common reason given was that they did
not see the need (46% of the instances in which no advice was sought): either the problem had
resolved or they expected it to resolve without getting advice, or they simply felt that they did
not need advice. Another important reason for not seeking advice was believing that it would
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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

make no difference (offered as a reason 24% of the time). In 9% of instances where people did
not or were not planning to seek advice, they explained that they did not know where to go or
how to do so. Concerns about cost played a role in 17% of cases in which people did not or
were not planning to turn to third parties, including lawyers, for assistance in handling civil
justice situations.

Figure 6. Selected Reasons for Not Going to Any Formal Advisor for Assistance with
a Civil Justice Situation: Middle City, 2013
No need for advice

Wouldn't make any difference

Cost too much

Don't know where/how

Too stressful
0%

10%

20%

30%

40%

50%

Source: Author’s  calculations  from the Community Needs and Services Study.

How Americans handle their civil justice situations is clearly not just about money.
Often, they believe there is no need to seek assistance, or that there is nothing to be done
about their situation. But, Americans do not take most of their justice situations to lawyers or
courts for another very important reason: they do not understand these situations to be legal.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

How Do People Understand Civil Justice Situations?
Americans typically do not think of their civil justice situations as legal issues . In the
situation histories collected by the CNSS, people were asked to describe what kind of situation
they thought they were confronting.    They  were  asked,  “Which,  if  any,  of  the  [following]
descriptions…  best  indicates  the  character”  of  the  situation,  and  allowed to choose as many as
they felt applied:
bad luck / part of life
moral
private (i.e. not something to involve others with)
criminal
part  of  God’s  plan
legal
social
bureaucratic
family / community (i.e. something to be dealt with within the family/community)
none of these

Middle City residents characterized 9% of their civil justice situations as legal and 4% as
criminal. Much more commonly, they described situations in ways that suggested that they
felt at least somewhat resigned to them: 56% of  situations  were  described  as  “bad  luck/  part  of  
life”  or  as “part  of  God’s  plan.”    For  a substantial minority of situations, people understood
them in ways that could make involving outside third parties seem inappropriate: 21% were
described as either private or as matters properly dealt with within the family or community.
How people think about these events matters for what they do about them. Overall,
people went to lawyers for help or considered doing so with 16% of the situations explored in
the life histories. However, they were significantly more likely to have used or considered using
lawyers for the situations that  they  believed  to  be  “legal” (39% of instances) than for those
they did not (14% of instances).2

2

χ2 = 16.6, df=1, p <.001.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

What Do People Believe About Justice in the USA
Today?
As this study reveals – and contrary to images of runaway litigiousness one sees in the
media -- Americans are not quick to turn to lawyers or courts to handle situations with legal
aspects. The residents of Middle City believe that courts are fair and accessible, but many also
believe that law is not always the appropriate source of resolution to their problems. Just over
half (54%) of those  surveyed  agreed  with  the  statement  that  “people  should  resolve  their  
problems  within  their  family,  not  using  lawyers  or  courts.”  At  the same time, these Americans
believe that law has an important role to play and is accessible to ordinary people: 85% agreed
with the statement  that  “courts  are  an  important  way  for  ordinary  people  to  enforce  their  
rights,”  while  four  fifths  (80%) agreed  that  “if  you  went  to  court with a problem, you would be
confident  of  getting  a  fair  hearing.”    
As we have seen, Americans do not typically perceive cost as a barrier to action when
considering how to respond to their own civil justice situations. However, they do see cost as a
barrier in the abstract for at least some people. A majority of respondents to the CNSS believe
that  lawyers’  fees  are  out  of  reach  for  poor people: 58% of those surveyed agreed with the
statement  that  “lawyers  are  not  affordable  for  people on low incomes.”  

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Conclusion
In the United States today, civil justice situations are common and widespread. For
many members of the American public, these are troubles that emerge  “at  the  intersection  of  
civil  law  and    everyday  adversity,”3 involving work, finances, insurance, pensions, wages,
benefits, shelter, and the care of young children and dependent adults, among other core
matters. These problems affect not only the poor or other vulnerable groups, but occur across
the population. Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study reveal that tens of
thousands of people in Middle City are experiencing civil justice situations, and imply that tens
of millions of people around the nation do so.
The consequences of these situations can be severe, and they do not fall equally on all
who experience them. People in low-income households are more likely than others to
experience negative consequences from civil justice situations, including adverse impacts on
health, confidence, and income.
While civil justice situations are frequent in the lives of Americans, turning to the legal
system to handle them is not. The most common type of civil justice experiences are in fact
those that do not involve contact with lawyers or the formal legal system. One predominant
explanation for why more Americans do not turn to lawyers with such situations involves the
cost of legal services. But the findings of the Community Needs and Services Study make clear
that it is not so simple. When facing civil justice situations, people often do not consider law at
all. They frequently do not think of these situations as legal, nor do they think of courts or of
attorneys as always appropriate providers of remedy.
The Community Needs and Services Study brings insights from key stakeholders into
debates about access to civil justice -- the public whose affairs are governed by civil laws,
whose taxes support the civil justice system, and whose votes elect those who make its rules
and set its funding. In  our  democracy,  filling  the  “Justice  Gap”4 and addressing  the  “Access-toJustice  Crisis”5 will require a broad conversation. To be fruitful, it must engage with more than
just the costs of services and the lack of funds. It must explore the perspectives of the public.

3

Rebecca  L.  Sandefur,  “The  Importance  of  Doing  Nothing:  Everyday  Problems  and  Responses  of  Inaction,”  in  
Transforming Lives: Law and Social Process, edited by Pascoe Pleasence, Alexy Buck and Nigel Balmer.
London:TSO (2007), p.113.
4
Legal Services Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of LowIncome Americans. An Updated Report of the Legal Services Corporation, Washington, DC: Legal Services
Corporation (2009).
5
“Imbalanced  Scales:  Why  There  is  an  Access-to-Justice  Crisis  in  a  Nation  of  Too  Many  Lawyers,”  Panel  
Discussion, Aspen Institute, Washington, DC, January 29, 2014.

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Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study

Acknowledgements
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (SES-1241288)
through both a project grant and its Research Experience for Undergraduate Program, and by
the American Bar Foundation through a project grant and its Montgomery Summer Research
Diversity Fellowships in Law and Social Science for Undergraduate Students. Pascoe Pleasence
has been a generous advisor from the beginning. Preliminary work on the study benefitted
from the research assistance of Jeremiah Bohr and Merritt Steele. A team of over 40
interviewers, programmers, field supervisors and other staff from the Iowa Social Science
Research Center worked hard to select, contact, recruit and survey respondents. In particular,
the author commends Ashley McDonald for her superb field direction. Preparation of the data
for this report was ably assisted by Margarita Rayzberg and Kaitlyn Williams.
A tremendous debt of gratitude is owed to the ordinary Americans who took the time
to share their experiences and perspectives through participating in the research.

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